I haven’t been to Shopping Iguatemi since I first arrived in Brazil. The first week I was here, I went two or three times to practice Portuguese because of the forced interactions between myself and salespeople. When I first arrived, I knew so few words. While at a store I once told a girl that I had so many Portuguese words in my “horse,” when what I really meant to say was “head.” So going to Iguatemi yesterday showed me how far I’d come in the past month and a half with respect to language.
Iguatemi is a big mall–three floors, tons of stores. It’s probably the equivalent size of the Providence Place Mall in…Providence. Ahem. The layout is familiar, like any mall I guess, so I felt comfortable wandering around. But walking into stores is another story since it takes some serious working-up of the nerves. Salespeople here are really aggressive–greeting customers immediately and getting up in their faces almost as soon as they walk into a store.
I guess this wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for my vocabulary which is the equivalent to that of a three year-old’s. When I wander the hallways of this mall, I am rehearsing sentences in my head: “I’m just looking,” “I want to buy a purse,” “What size is this?” and all the colors of the rainbow. I walked around the mall probably four times, and two of them were laps dedicated solely to practicing my Portuguese shopping-specific phrases. I knew once I’d enter a store, I would need to have a few sentences ready and perfect to arm myself against the onslaught of cheery salespeople.
Some might consider this good salesmanship–greet the customer, tell the customer about the sales and promotions, make the customer feel at home, ask if he or she is looking for something specific. I consider it scary. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. But I will say, I’m not the only one who gets scared.
In one of my early laps around the mall, I stopped into one store that I like, but whose clothes are much too expensive for me. So as I perused the racks, I stopped at one wall on which hung very cool, but tiny and see-through, tank-tops priced at R$500 and up. Insane. I held one up to my body to see what it would look like, and at that same time, a sales woman approached me. Here is how the conversation went: (My part was said in Portuguese.)
Her: AlherjioihsilN 3s, gostei blah blah, X?
Me: What? Could you say that again, please?
Her: [realizing my Portuguese is not fluent, looking nervously over at the other sales person, then biting her lip and blushing.]
Me: It’s okay. I speak a little Portuguese. You can talk with me.
Me: [turning back to the tank top.] I like this.
Her:[nodding.] Fifilalablahblahblah. Do you want blahnono6i PRqfEfr?
Me: I’m sorry. Could you repeat what you said?
Her: [looking nervously again to the other woman.]
Me: I like this. But it’s too expensive. And I need bigger boobs. [Well, I don’t really know the word for “boobs” so I actually just grabbed my own and said “these.”] I need bigger these.
Her: [totally bewildered. speechless.]
Me: [grabbing my these again.] I don’t have these. I want bigger these. I need bigger these to wear this [pointing at the shirt.]
Her: [eyes wide.]
Me: [Saying to myself, “You are scaring this woman. Stop grabbing your these and get out. Do you really want this conversation to be about your these? Just shut up.”]
Her: [watching my every move so intently that she actually backs into a gigantic armoire displaying shirts and dresses. Arms fly up, knocking down a shirt from its hangar. Foot slips out from under her. She collects herself not once taking her eyes off of me.]
Me: [pretending I haven’t just seen this.]
I eventually wave a stupid goodbye and say thanks and leave the store. What had I learned in that moment? I hadn’t progressed much at all in the past month and a half since the woman was throwing words at me left and right that I hadn’t yet encountered. Maybe I’d encountered them but hadn’t been able to visualize them as individual words yet. Whatever the case, I learned I still have a great deal of learning to do.
But I also learned that when individuals encounter something new and different, something other than what they consider “normal,” they can react in one of two ways: with acceptance or with fear. I know I am capable of reacting to new things with fear, but for the most part, I think I accept those new or different things. But I have never been the object of someone else’s fear. The woman was afraid of me. She clearly didn’t know how to speak so it got her nervous. Did I expect her to speak English to me? Hell no! But did I at least expect her to not get so freaked out that she would forget about the general layout of her store and back herself into an armoire simply because I asked her to repeat herself? Uh, yes. Yes I did expect that.
I am usually the one who gets nervous in these situations. I think there was no need for her to get nervous, especially that nervous. In all the other stores I went into, people kind of looked at me like I was a little different, mostly because I spoke quietly to them and didn’t get into a huge conversation immediately. But this woman? A complete anomaly.
As the evening wore on and I spent more time looking around the mall and feeling comfortable, my language improved. Most of the people I encountered were warm and willing to speak with me. I had an entire conversation with a woman in one store about living here and learning Portuguese and it was great. In another store, I learned all about how they make the certain product and how I should wear it. In another, I learned about the woman who makes the jewelry and who uses materials found only in Brazil. So I felt better at the end of the day. My conversation with the taxi-driver was the climax of the night since I was speaking faster and more fluently. I felt good about myself.
Today, too, I met up with a friend of Dennis’ cousin for lunch. He is a professor at UNICAMP and he drove me around the campus and took me out for sushi. We spent the entire afternoon speaking Portuguese because he speaks only a little English. And we talked about everything–from the film “Capote,” to the economic state of Brazil, the difference between “Poverty” in the US and “Poverty” in Brazil, learning Portuguese, why he thinks Rio is the most beautiful city in the world, my family history, why and how I decided to come to Brazil, education, and Paris. The entire time in Portuguese! Yea, Gina. And while I didn’t understand exactly every word he said exactly as he was saying it, I got the idea and for now, after only being here for two months, I think that’s okay.
I just need to keep telling myself that it is really okay not to know everything right now.